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Diversity Business Partner for Google Cloud on diversity and inclusion during COVID-19

We were very lucky to have Cornell Verdeja-Woodson, a Diversity Business Partner for Google Cloud, on the WFH podcast. The following is an abbreviated version of Cornell’s conversation with our host Nikki Weisgarber. Hear the complete podcast.

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I actually just moved to California, so I'm new to tech. My background is in education. I have a master's degree in higher education. I did diversity-related work for over 10 years in education and moved to tech about a year and a half ago, helping tech organizations really develop their diversity initiatives in order to be able to impact the world in a larger way.

How does working remotely foster greater workplace diversity and inclusion?

It's really opening people's eyes to the things that they take for granted every single day. It’s so important because there are folks who don't have the opportunity to do a lot of the things that some of us are used to, like to go out to brunch, for example. I work from home most of the time anyway, but I really miss being able to go to brunch – being able to get out there.

However, what people are witnessing, is that brunch is far from what most people are concerned about. There are a lot of people who don't have a job anymore because their work can't be done from home. There are some people who still have to go to work and risk catching COVID-19 because if they refuse to go to work, it means they’ll lose their job.

“[COVID] is really opening people’s eyes to how other people navigate the world – and where privilege really lies – and how some people can benefit from their class, their socioeconomic class, their race, their gender… A lot of people are having ‘aha’ moments.”

This is really impacting people differently. And I think for many of us, it's really opening people’s eyes to the ways in which other people navigate the world – and where privilege really lies, and how some people can benefit from their class, their socioeconomic class, their race, their gender, and things of that sort. A lot of people are having “aha” moments (which my work is so steeped in) by being forced to work from home and not being able to go outside and do the things that they want to do.

I have found myself overcome with emotion because I was so selfish in that first week of remote work. And then I thought, "What's the problem here? Other people are experiencing much worse circumstances.” I've reflected on that, and I am going to act differently going forward.

You really hit on something good, right? I'm finding that most people, when it comes to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) stay away from those aha moments out of fear of what that means. Maybe they are thinking that before "I wasn't a good person," or, "I wasn't a humble person, or someone who thought of others." But no, you had a certain vantage point. You had a certain way of living that you understood. And it's hard to know how other people live until you're presented with an opportunity to be educated. So, the fact that you're thinking, "Whoa, I'm taking that information. I'm going to do some things differently now that I know." That's what we're working towards. That's what makes this an amazing experience.

Tell us about how you make sure that all your employees are engaged during this time, especially those that are from backgrounds that are often overlooked in meetings or events or just in their daily lives?

Absolutely. When it comes to these kinds of things, it's really important to note that everyone needs something different when it comes to engagement. So, we need to ask what the different groups that exist within the organization on our teams are, and what might each of those groups need.

“We're encouraging our managers to be patient, to be kind, and most importantly, to ask questions. Most of the time folks from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds aren't going to advocate for themselves.”

Folks who struggle with mental health, what might they need in this moment? Folks who have children, folks who take care of aging parents, or things of that sort. We need to ask what they need in this moment to make sure they know that we're here for them.

We're encouraging our managers to be patient, to be kind, and most importantly, to ask questions. We find that most of the time folks from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds aren't going to advocate for themselves. They're not going to say, "Hey, I have four children, and I'm a single parent," or, "My spouse actually has to go to work, so I'm home with the kids." They're not going to advocate for themselves out of fear of how that might look on them. Women, in particular, will not advocate for themselves for that reason, especially if they're in engineering roles or sales roles, because they don't want to be seen as the weakest link.

So, it's really important for managers to step up and say, "Hey, I know you have needs. Let me know what those are so I can be here and show up for you and create the space for you to take care of what you have to take care of, so you can show up in a major way at work knowing that personal things are being taken care."

Do you have any advice for employees with those needs on how they can communicate to their managers – especially if their managers aren't reaching out to them?

First, I want to acknowledge how difficult that can be – depending on the culture and climate of your organization. If you're in an organization where you have one-on-ones with your manager (and go ahead and request one if they’re not pre-scheduled), use that time to just say, "Hey, I really want to be able to do my best work. And right now there are some things outside of work that are really pressing for me, that are going to inhibit my ability to really be successful in the work that I have to get done." And then outline what is it that you need – and be very specific, because most times your manager is going to ask, "Okay, thank you for telling me. What do you need?" Be ready to provide what that looks like.

But I think that a lot of times managers want to know, "How are we making sure that the work still gets done and you still get what you need?" So, as the employee, a great way to approach it is to say, "Hey, I want to do my best work. Here's what I need in order to be able to do that." 

“It's really important to note that everyone needs something different when it comes to engagement.”

I’d like to talk about the neurodiverse community. According to the CDC, 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls in the US are autistic. So how do we manage a remote workforce that is inclusive of those who are neurodiverse?

Neurodiversity is an under-discussed opportunity within diversity. Knowing that we potentially work with a lot of folks who fall under that umbrella, it's necessary for us, first, to know what neurodiversity even means. What does that look like? And then, from there, we're able to figure out how we create processes and systems of support to be able to allow them to function well and get the support that they need to do their job.

Understanding and awareness are always critical. Diversity education always gets a lot of flak. There are tons of articles that say, "Diversity training doesn't work." And, it's like, "Yeah, they don't work by themselves." So, awareness is super critical because the more I know, the better I can do – and the better decisions I can make. So, being able to understand and create space for people to self-identify as neurodiverse is vital.

“Being able to understand and create space for people to self-identify as neurodiverse is vital.”

We don't want people out there diagnosing others as neurodiverse because they learned about it through a magazine article. We need to create space for people to be able to say, "Hey, I'm someone who really needs this kind of support because of my neurodiversity, and here's what that looks like for me." Opening up the communication for people to be able to advocate for themselves is the best way you can support a large portion of people.

With organizations starting to see the viability of remote work, it opens doors to a larger talent pool. Let's talk about how this creates a greater opportunity to diversify our companies.

I think this is my favorite question, and my favorite topic coming out of this conversation around working from home. There are so many industries that really did not see working from home as a viable way to build teams and manage people and to get work done. But COVID-19 has really forced us to see that working from home – when done strategically and intentionally – can be a viable option for many people.

This opens our workforce to different people. For example, there are folks who don't have the resources to be able to travel back and forth into work or may not want to. I think of my time working in higher education, where we were trying to recruit people of color to some smaller towns that were usually predominantly white. And many people of color, particularly with children, don't want to move to a small town where it's predominantly white because they don't want to raise their kids in spaces where they're the one of five. And there are certain cultural things that people need in their town in order to feel at home. And so, if we open our workforce up to being more open to work-from-home options, now your talent pool opens up because people can live where they need to. Not to mention that remote work can limit the high price tag of relocating employees. Those factors can hinder where you can hire from and who you're willing to hire because you can't afford to help them move. But now, work-from-home options allow us to really connect with different demographics and people from all over the country to be able to maximize the talent that's really out there.

“Work-from-home options allow us to really connect with different demographics and people from all over the country to be able to maximize the talent that's really out there.”

Does the transition to remote work impact diversity initiatives?

It definitely does. For example, training. When it comes to diversity, training is often face-to-face. Many people will tell you that doing it virtually is not the best option because there are so many emotions that come out of talking about diversity. You want to be able to be there in a space with someone, to support them in that moment. But now we're being forced to really rethink, "Wow. We’ve got to get more creative and think about how diversity training translates in a virtual world – using the resources and the technology that are out there to make it just as engaging virtually as it was face to face."

The other thing is that we're helping people develop new skills. So, we're helping managers develop new skills of how to deal with conflict virtually. You know that 85% of our communication is nonverbal. If we're all on Zoom or Google Hangouts and folks have their cameras off, there's much more room for people to misinterpret or misunderstand what someone said. So now we're helping managers to really focus on conflict management skills, making sure that folks who traditionally are talked over in face-to-face meetings don’t also get talked over in virtual meetings.

We know that women often get interrupted and left out of conversations by their male colleagues. So how do we make sure that in a virtual world (where it's very easy to hide under the radar), managers are being very mindful of who's not talking? They should be asking "Who haven't I heard from?" and saying, "Hey, I want to open up this space for people who I haven't heard from already."

n I think the other thing from a DEI perspective of what will change is, unfortunately, that many companies will have to reprioritize their business goals and really pivot to something different. And, unfortunately, diversity initiatives can get pushed to the back burner when more pressing issues arise. For DEI professionals, it's really going to be important for us to make sure that we are making leaders aware that diversity is just as important, if not more important, today as it was before COVID-19.

“COVID-19 will be a test for whether or not the business case for diversity conversations actually worked.”

I've been telling people I think that COVID-19 will be a test for whether or not the business case for diversity conversations actually worked. Will leaders think on their own that, "Yes, we’ve got to get diversity in on this"? Or will they push us to the back, requiring us to really step up and say, "Uh-uh. You need us, and here's why"?

Have you experienced that?

No. So far, not at all. If anything, you see the messaging from other companies, and even my own, steeped in diversity. If anything, they recognize how inclusion is even more important for the reasons we talked about earlier, that people with significant identities of privilege are now going, "Whoa, this is what it feels like to be excluded." So now we're ramping it up, even more, to say, "This is the time to show up, to empathize, to be humble, and to be there for each other."

"This is the time to show up, to empathize, to be humble, and to be there for each other."

Everything that I've been reading on diversity and inclusion during this time says this is not the time to cut out any of these initiatives. This is the time to enhance them so that when we come out on the other side of all of this, it's still something that we're working on.

Exactly. And I think working from home will require new systems. And if we build those systems from the ground up with inclusion at the center, we're going to build it in a way that is equitable for all the people who need to be impacted by it.

And it's part of your culture, and your foundation too, right? If you don't have that foundation, it's going to crumble.

Exactly. And it's going to make it harder to fix down the line.

What might be the long-term impact of COVID-19 on diversity work?

I think the big thing is whether diversity work has the reach that we want it to have. I think this is the opportunity for diversity to expand its reach. And what I mean by expanding its reach is that, oftentimes, the best way to implement diversity initiatives is when they touch every aspect of the company: the product, human resources, the facilities, promotion, hiring, all of that. I think that this will be an opportunity for diversity, long term, to naturally seep its way into all those areas – and for us to not have such a hard time getting into those areas.

This could be a natural way for the professionals who are ready with the data, ready with the information, to say, "Look, here's why we need to be at that table having those conversations in those rooms. This is an impact that can really uplift diversity and inclusion initiatives in a major way."

The other thing is specifically around companies who are going to be laying people off. DEI professionals need to be a part of those conversations about how we do that equitably. We know that it has to be done, right? The money isn't there. We've seen some companies where, instead of laying people off, they've asked everyone to decrease their salary to make room for everyone else to be able to keep their job. So how are we a part of those conversations and how are we impacting how we make those decisions? Those are two big things that I think are really going to be top of mind for many companies and how DEI will be impacted in the long term.

Do you have any sort of final thoughts or takeaways that you'd like to leave our audience with?

I think this is a big opportunity for people in diversity roles to get ready to really center diversity around everything that's happening. We have to be ready for that. We have to be ready and have the courage to step up and say, "Hey, do not forget these DEI initiatives. And here's how they're connected, even as you pivot to different priorities because of COVID-19."

“This is a really great opportunity for allies to step up and recognize the differences in how COVID-19 has impacted different people.”

But if you're someone who's like, "I'm not in a diversity role, but this matters," or, "I'm just learning about this," I think that this is a really great opportunity for allies to step up and recognize the differences in how COVID-19 has impacted different people. It’s time to say to your company or organization, "What are we doing for this population?" Allies are so important for this conversation, and we need them now more than ever to use that identity privilege to step up and say, "Hey, we're not doing this right," or, "We could be doing this better. And let's do it now before it gets too bad and we can't fix it."

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